[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my advising practice, I regularly send my advising group a preface letter — which comes before a second letter that speaks directly to a student’s individual work — in which I speak to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I share the letters here.]
Writers write, Rick Benjamin says, leaning back in one of the impossibly orange chairs on my deck. It is warm—weirdly, almost tropically warm for an April day in Rhode Island. He is holding a cup of coffee and the clouds are gathering above us. We know it will rain soon, but we are sitting outside while we can. Rick sips his coffee. Writers write, he says again, like he always does.
He looks at me and adds, And painters paint. And Dancers dance. And… He drifts off. I know the drill. He knows I know.
We are talking about pedagogy (like we often do), working with emerging artists, and about the nature of practice. Rick is talking about art students (really about all of us who think ourselves artists), about the need to reassure and to invite artists into a continuing process of making things, meaning, regardless of immediate, tangible success. Even more, he is talking about passion, and the fact that success—whatever success might be—comes from following an insistent calling to do something, anything, over and over. Writers write. They write because they want to write. Maybe, they need to write.
Rick is talking about students, but I nod in his direction thinking about myself. I have been writing, working consistently and confidently over the past few weeks. I feel good for having followed whatever insistent voice echoes through my head, pulling me toward doing it. I feel good for articulating my thinking.
My conversation with Rick was last week, when I was feeling confident, engaged. Three days ago, I awoke with nothing. Nothing! Yesterday? The same thing. I was supposed to be writing this letter. I was supposed to be moving along with packet three. It was in my calendar, clear as day: write preface letter for packet three. A simple task, write a letter, my work for the day. Easy. Five pages.
I went to my studio, because sometimes one kind of creative work inspires another.
So, I spend most of the day doing this or that, attending to phone calls, doing administrative work. I get a call, from a friend, who needs help moving a bureau. I go to his house and we start talking. He thanks me for coming over so quickly. I tell him my problem, and thank him for the excuse to leave the house. I am hoping that movement of my body will move my mind.
We have tea and talk about the bombings in Boston, the frenetic manhunt for the suspects, the weirdness of watching a drill for martial law that unfolded across the Commonwealth. We talk about how strange it is to watch people talk gladly about martial law on television.
You really got into this, he says.
I nod. Yes, I say, I felt an obligation to watch it, to pay attention. It is history.
I again tell him my problem. I don’t think I’m sick, I say, but I don’t have any energy. I can’t seem to write.
No, he says, I can understand that. It will take a while for you rest from watching all that.
In the evening, I walk down the hill to an auditorium at RISD. Kahlil Almustafa is in town and doing a reading. Rick Benjamin has organized it. It is good to see Kahlil. It has been a couple of years.
Waiting for Kahlil to read, talking with people, it becomes evident that my RISD and Goddard lives are intersecting. I know Kahlil from Goddard where I had the good luck to work with him for a semester. I’ve known RISD for twenty-nine years, as student, administrator, faulty, neighbor. Tonight is a strange coming together. I have compartmentalized these parts of my life, these ways of experiencing the world. I understand them to be very different, like sections of a department store. The difference between underwear and automotive, or say shoes and cookware. I understand them to be different because I experience them differently. They operate differently. I need them differently.
Last month I had a similar experience, although the feelings were different, when Jo Dery and Beth Nixon spoke at New Urban Arts. Both Goddard graduates, being at New Urban Arts didn’t feel fractured, like a disjuncture. In my mind, I align New Urban Arts and Goddard. Home and Garden.
Kahlil will talk at New Urban Arts tomorrow. It makes sense to me.
I write in my notebook: making the network.
Like me, Rick is a creature of these three institutions. He is leveraging the network, creating opportunity for each to learn from, to benefit from the other. It’s what artists do. It’s how we encourage, how we enable each other’s success. We hold space for each other’s work.
This, too, is practice.
As Kahlil reads, I start making notes. Some of my notes are fragments of his poetry, but more often I am riffing off him—leaving the auditorium and returning to my desk, writing the first lines of the final chapter of my book. I become conscious of what I’m doing and feel conflicted. I should be paying attention, learning all I can from Kahlil’s wisdom. I am also aware that this is why I go to readings, lectures, exhibitions. I make myself present to the work of others for the dialogue, to enable a response. To advance my thinking.
I write in my notebook: I need to reenter the world (more), to do more to reconnect with realness.
I am allowing the mediation of knowledge to erode my empathy and self-awareness. I am living in ideas, but not thoughtfully engaging them in the world.
Fast and loose, keep it fast and loose, Rick says, explaining how he encourages the creation of poetry in his classes. Fifteen or twenty minutes to write a poem.
He stops to reflect on how this is received by elders, for whom he convenes a writing workshop at an assisted living center. They want more time. They want to do it right. They want to waste no time.
No time to waste.
Rick says it again, in another way: I do it too, I say it to myself: Fast and loose, Fifteen or twenty minutes to write a poem. A pause, maybe a beat. Plus, say, the fifty-three years of my life.
Rick and Kahlil are having a conversation, a public conversation, as part of a series at New Urban Arts. They are talking about creative practice, sharing their work, in dialogue. They agree: We didn’t plan this conversation too much, we wanted to respond to each other. We wanted to think together.
Rick says this a lot, too. Think together. Watching, listening to them, I finally get it.
Poetry is my personal pedagogy, Kahlil says, my way of learning the world.
Rick offers, We all need to risk being prophetic.
Towards the end of the conversation, Kahlil says: We each want to be a little more enlightened tomorrow than we are today. I want to make wisdom sexy.
Rick says, Poetry is a wisdom practice.
Is it a sexy wisdom practice, I wonder?
It’s not just the thinking that’s interesting to me; it’s the together.
I know this letter isn’t like my other prefaces. I figured I’d mix it up, and offer something that’s about my process of seeking answers to insistent questions. Since the residency, I’ve been concerned about my use of the word practice. In the bubble in which I live it’s tossed around a lot, with the implication that its meaning is self-evident. Increasingly it feels fractured to me, like a metaphor that’s cleaving me from realness. It feels over-determined in one sphere of my life, disassociated from another. Too often it feels to me that it’s being used to infer a mastery of theory, a static understanding of context, a fetishization of artmaking (of a certain kind). It feels like currency, too—a thing that some have and others have yet to acquire. I want it to mean engaging wisdom with intention. I want it to be a conversation that’s fast and loose, ready to be transformed through dialogue, unconcerned with showing off what’s already known, unconcerned with proving itself. I want it to make me excited about what’s to come.
It may seem odd that I’m sharing these equivocations with you, especially since my job is to encourage the development of your art practice. I’m offering it because I think it’s important to know that the nature of these things isn’t fixed, or without qualification. There are times when we all have to reexamine, step back, consider again the concepts we take for granted. There are times we need to chart our location and commitments. Sometimes we reaffirm our commitment to the ground on which we’re standing. Other times we move. For me, I’m trying to find a way back to the concepts of practice that I find generative and useful, and I’m trying to shed some of the deadening pretense that’s weighing down the concept of practice for me. I’m trying to get out of the monastery.
You know from my earlier letters that I’m thinking a lot about the academicization of art. I’ve also been rereading Emerson, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the ideas he shared in the American Scholar (and relating them to art). We lose something when we mistake the rehashing of others’ ideas as wisdom. There’s great opportunity in engaging with things directly and learning to make knowledge from our experiences. Or, as William Carlos Williams put it, in his long-form poem Patterson: no ideas but in things.
But there I go again, sharing the ideas of others, passing them along as wisdom.
I don’t mean to imply that we should set aside or dismiss the conceptual or the thinking of others (and I don’t think Williams did either). No, I think we should engage with the conceptual, invite other thinkers to be our companions. Even more, we might think of concepts and theory as being alive, as something that’s a holistic part of experience, as things that need to grow and live in the world. Ideas need not be disassociated from our actions.
I’m with Kahlil. I want wisdom to be sexy.